Writing for Social Media: A Guide for Academics

Published: August 10, 2019

Making connections is a critical element of any academic career. Because colleagues may be across the world, social media can be a useful tool for starting and developing relationships with other scholars. A basic use of social media, is periodically updating a profile with information about conference presentations or recently published articles. These kinds of posts notify audiences about a scholar’s academic life and also may be of interest to friends and family.

More and more, however, academics are using social media not only to maintain connections, but to gain a following. They write posts that connect deeply, advocate for a cause, or inform their followers about a truly stimulating idea. Their social media presence contributes to their reputation, introduces their ideas to new audiences, and even can influence a conversation. For example, some history graduate students and faculty from a variety of universities around the country have begun participating in virtual movie screenings. During these screenings, they all watch the same Netflix film together and tweet their reactions. The doctoral candidate who is the architect behind these screenings said that they helped him stay “intellectually engaged with an academic community.” Social media may also help increase access for those in marginalized communities including scholars with disabilities, as Professor Jason S. Farr and Postdoctoral Fellow Travis Chi Wing Lau argue.

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t risks associated with social media use. Lecturer and Senior Fellow Gordon Fraser argues that Twitter’s abbreviated format and polarization can “reduce academics to mere peddlers of opinion.” Other scholars have been the targets of hate on social media. After Professor Albert Ponce gave a lecture in which he discussed white supremacy and racism in the United States, he received “attacks on Facebook and threatening voice messages and emails.” While anyone may attract the ire of partisans on social platforms, research shows that this harm is unevenly distributed across identity. A 2018 study from Amnesty International and Element AI, found that 7.1% of the messages sent to women were “problematic” or “abusive.” Women of color were 34% more likely than white women to receive these messages and black women, in particular, were 84% more likely than white women to receive these problematic or abusive messages. Ultimately, each scholar must determine how these risks compare to the potential rewards of using social media.

This page is intended to introduce academics at all levels to the way that social media can be used to build and sustain an intellectual network. Here, we group social media posts across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram into three categories based on their purpose: to inform, to connect, or to advocate. While these categories are in no way inclusive of all social media posts written by academics, our informal study has shown that these kinds of posts are common among scholars. These categories are also not mutually exclusive. In actuality, authors often blend these categories together to write compelling posts. This page includes several thought-provoking examples of each post category from UW-Madison faculty and graduate students and provides commentary about each example. By discussing these examples, we hope that you will be able to learn more about how to effectively engage with your audience on your platform of choice. We also want to celebrate some of the powerful and impressive work that our colleagues are doing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

As you’ll see from the examples below, social media posts are rhetorically complex and may be interpreted in a variety of ways.  This interpretation is dependent on the reader’s relationship to the post, among other factors. The explication below suggests some of the many effects and goals of these posts.

To Inform

While using social media to inform may seem straightforward, in actuality, it can be challenging to create a post that both informs and encourages others to engage with the content that you’re posting. Some exciting posts that we see in this category mix the factual with the personal—they tell audiences something more than can be read on Wikipedia, in a conference’s program guide, or publisher’s website. In the first example below, we see Professor Ainehi Edoro tell a story about her experience in Tübingen, Germany, via the Instagram account of Brittle Paper, an online project—founded and edited by Edoro—that exhibits African writing and literary culture.

This Instagram post from Brittle Paper depicts Professor Ainehi Edoro standing in front of a river. The caption reads "My lecture at University of Tubingen went well. This time, it was a smaller class of 35 students taught by Russel West-Pavlov, an Australia-born scholar who has written a ton on African literature and aesthetics. After the lecture, I had lunch at an Irish pub with Russ and two of his graduate students — Carina and Louis. Carina was sweet. She offered to take me on a tour of the city. She began by pointing out remnants of the school’s Nazi past. Apparently, the law school building is where people would gather to hear Hitler speak. It was chilling to pass by places where she said Jewish people were locked up. The university was established in the 15th century. The city is much older and has ties to illustrious names in literature and philosophy — Hegel, Schelling, Goethe, Holderlin. I went to the bar where Hegel frequented as a student. I also went to a building where Goethe lived and famously vomited out of a window. 😆😆😆"

The next example in this category is from Professor John Hawks, who has used Twitter to point out a factual inconsistency in a newspaper article. The article in question was later edited to note that one of the researchers for the study featured in the article had a possible conflict of interest.

To Connect

Another key purpose of social media is to connect with followers. (Of course, we might say that every post’s goal is to connect with others, but some posts seem to foreground this purpose more than others.) Posts whose primary goal is to connect often ask questions, use humor, and exhibit genuine emotion in order to relate to their audiences. Below, graduate student Erica Kanesaka Kalnay comments on Easy brand slippers to explore her friends’ feelings of nostalgia on Facebook.

Facebook post from Erica Kanesaka Kalnay. Text reads: "I think slippers are interesting because they’re what we wear in transitional spaces (outside/inside) and during periods of play, recovery, and rest. They’ve also historically been associated with a kind of “Oriental” languor and sensuality. Today I saw these Easy brand Chinese mesh slippers with sequined flowers in a store window, and immediately had an intense feeling of nostalgia for 2003/2004, when they were popular in the San Francisco Bay Area. But I don’t know if that was just a local trend?" The post includes a picture of Easy brand Chinese mesh slippers.

In this unconventional tweet about fruit snacks, Professor Karl Broman links to a page on his personal website that describes an informal research project that he completed with his children about the flavor distribution of their favorite brand of gummy candy.

Finally, graduate student Danielle Nelson shares a photo of her collections of Sylvia Plath books on Instagram and recalls warm memories of a conference she attended in Belfast.

This Instagram post depicts a pile of Sylvia Plath books. The caption reads, "took this photo a year ago the night before flying to belfast for the sylvia plath conference ✨ had such fun reading and rereading all my plathie books and reworking a chapter from my undergrad thesis on the unabridged journals for the talk... such a lovely memory. thanks again to @theplathdiaries for organizing! so grateful for the experience and the opportunity to meet such wonderful people, new friends 💕"

 To Advocate 

Because of the public nature of social media and its accessibility to audiences beyond the academy, one of the most powerful uses of social media is to advocate for social change. We often see scholars draw on their research to influence public opinion. Below, in a viral tweet, Professor Sami Schalk responds to comments criticizing Serena Williams after her performance at the 2018 Tennis Open Final. Schalk cuts to the heart of the controversy and cogently responds to critics who disparaged Williams for her outbursts in reaction to what many perceived to be the match’s sexist and racist officiating.

Below, Professor Kristen Slack breaks from the 280-character limit to advocate for funding programs designed to combat child maltreatment in a series of tweets. Here, Slack merges the genres of social media and academic prose by writing at length, citing her sources, and including statistics.

In a series of tweets, Kristen Slack says, “Child maltreatment prevention never gets mentioned as a priority by any politician, regardless of political party. Yet, cumulative estimates of child maltreatment victimization suggest that over one in 10 U.S. children are abused or neglected at some point before the age of 18. That's over 10% of the U.S. child population, and this is a conservative estimate as many situations of child abuse and neglect are never reported. Child maltreatment is a major public health issue. Decades of research show its association with a broad range of adverse outcomes. Outcomes that span physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive domains. Take any social welfare system or benefit intended to assist people struggling in these areas (e.g., behavioral health, criminal justice, means-tested welfare benefits)... ...and you will find a disturbing rate of childhood maltreatment histories. Although causality between child maltreatment and later adversities is tricky to establish, the sheer volume of studies pointing to strong and persistent correlations, suggests CM has a causal role. So in other words, if we meaningfully invest in efforts to prevent child maltreatment, an arena that is woefully underfunded at all levels of government, we will likely have meaningful reductions in later adverse outcomes touching multiple costly systems. And, gross class and racial disparities in our systemic responses to child maltreatment (e.g., over-representation of low-income, Black and Native American children in child protection systems), could be drastically reduced if we better support families with prevention services. But children don't vote and the ROI will have a long time horizon, so why bother making this a priority if you are a politician? Maybe because you actually want to help make things profoundly better for kids and families, even if you don't get any short-term credit for doing so. And researchers, if you're designing studies to assess impact of social welfare and economic support interventions, don't forget to include child maltreatment outcomes! So many lost opportunities for doing so. Assumption is that it is a "small" problem. Not true. It's time to get serious about preventing child abuse and neglect. Family First is a recent kickstart, but it is limited in scope and funding. And ongoing political and public will is essential to achieving success. We need politicians to champion this issue! Reference for stat in the initial tweet: Wildeman, C., Emanuel, N., Leventhal, J.M., Putnam-Hornstein, E., Waldfogel, J., & Lee, H. (2014). The prevalence of confirmed maltreatment among U.S. Children, 2004-2011. JAMA Pediatrics, 410, E1-E7.